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Awareness to Action: Nine Steps to Courageous Principal Leadership

As unimaginable as it sounds, the Covid-19 pandemic that has brought tragedy to hundreds of thousands of American lives since early 2020 may have one enduring, positive impact. Revelations about racial inequities in health care, employment, housing, and education brought us over a threshold that is critical for any form of change—seeing and acknowledging an issue as real. As James Baldwin (1962) wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”  

Facing the truth head-on is the crucial first step in any journey toward racial awareness, which is why we begin our (Raskin & Krull) principal leadership program with that process.  The Institute of Courageous Principal Leadership, which was founded in 2011, provides principals with a step-by-step pathway for developing racial consciousness and the tools to maximize their impact on achievement in their schools. Research suggests that schools succeeding against all odds are led by strong principals who believe children of all races and income levels can meet high academic standards—and who hold students and teachers to those standards (Carter, 2000; McGee, 2004).  

Based on observations of what happens as principals move through the racially conscious journey in the two-year program, we mapped out a Theory of Action that traces each step in the process. We have watched this pathway play out in our ten years leading the Institute and seen the evidence in improved achievement in some of our participants’ schools.  

Each step in this leadership model helps build a foundation of awareness, knowledge, skills, and the resilience required to stay the course in this courageous work:  

Step 1: Knowing Self. The process starts with an investigation of one’s socialization around race. Writing a racial autobiography, “I Am From” poems, and exploring our identity through Harro’s (2000) Cycle of Socialization reveals the powerful elements of society that socialize us to internalize beliefs and then behaviors that keep the inequitable system intact. Through these lived experiences, individuals of any race ask themselves: Who and what impacted me? What institutions, influential people, media, and music in my life sent me signals that affected my ideas about race?  

Theory of Action  

Step 2: Knowing my Purpose/My “Why” and Beliefs, compels school leaders to examine and define their beliefs about learning and their mission as educators. An important phase of this task is looking at any contrasts between our beliefs and our actions. For example, if a high school principal “leads for equity” in a school where half of the students are children of color, but everyone in the advanced placement classes is white, there is a misalignment between what this leader believes and does. 

Step 3: Knowing Research-Proven Best Practices guides us to examine which educational practices are effective and which are not. Many factors have led us to persist in practices that do not have high return for student achievement, and equipped with the knowledge of what actually works, principals can have a significant impact on achievement. Hattie’s (2012) extensive data on effective instruction is one of the foundations of our Theory of Action. For example, Hattie’s highest-ranked strategy, enhancing “student expectations of self,” shows that when we invest in a students’ belief in their own potential–exceptional academic growth in learning occurs. 

Step 4: Strategically Implementing Best Practices with Fidelity involves helping teachers bring the best practices we learn about in Step 3 into their classrooms consistently and routinely while removing instructional practices that have proven to be ineffective. Much of this process is based on Yvette Jackson’s (2011) approach to high intellectual performance, the Pedagogy of Confidence, that gives teachers “confidence in their ability to inspire, elicit, and build on [student] strengths” (p. 4). In addition, this step incorporates learning how to use Glenn Singleton’s (2015) Courageous Conversations About Race protocol to communicate with teachers, staff, board members, and the community.  

Step 5: Data Evidence of Increased Student Achievement is the phase in which principals see the results of implementing proven best practices with fidelity. 

Step 6: Gaining Confidence in My Leadership defines the personal impact of seeing the increased achievement in Step 5. This confidence leads to: 

Step 7: Allowing Me to Lead Confidently. Self-confidence gained by seeing the positive results of their actions empowers principals to forge ahead with their mission to create educational equity for all students.  

Step 8: I’m Resilient in My Leadership defines the new strength principals develop to continue their equity approaches in the face of resistance. When leaders intentionally prepare for resistance, they are able to move through it and stay true to racial equity leadership. 

Step 9: Resulting in High Student Achievement for All. Each previous step works to build an infrastructure in which every student has the opportunity for high achievement. Relatedly, the arrow that connects this final step back to the first step illustrates that the pathway is not a one-time effort, but a dynamic, ongoing flow of experiences.  

We recently discussed our approach in detail and shared the experiences of many school leaders engaged in equity work in Principal Leadership for Racial Equity: A Field Guide for Developing Race Consciousness (Corwin, 2021). We wrote the book with the belief that working conscientiously and with an intentional focus on race, school leaders can and will create the conditions for every student to achieve at high levels.  


References

Baldwin, J. (1962, January 14). As much truth as one can bear. The New York Times Book Review. 

Carter, S. C. (2000). No excuses: Lessons from 21 high-performing, high-poverty schools. Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation. 

Harro, B. (2000). The cycle of socialization. In M. Adam, W. J. Blumenfeld, R. Castañeda, H. W. Hackman, M. L. Peters, & X. Zúñiga (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice. New York: Routledge. 

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Jackson, Y. (2011). The pedagogy of confidence: Inspiring high intellectual performance in urban schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 

McGee, G. W. (2004). Closing the achievement gap: Lessons from Illinois’ Golden Spike high-poverty, high-performing schools. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 9(2), 97-125. 

Raskin, C., Krull, M., & Thatcher, R. (2015). Developing principals as racial equity leaders: A mixed method study. AASA Journal of Scholarship & Practice12(2), 4-19. 

Singleton, G. E. (2015). Courageous conversations about race: A field guide for achieving equity in schools (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.  

Written by

Melissa Krull, Ph.D., is a co-founder and facilitator of the Institute for Courageous Principal Leadership and has 20 years of leadership experience including 10 as superintendent. She is co-author of a chapter in More Courageous Conversations: From Theory to Practice (2012), and co-author of Principal Leadership for Racial Equity A Field Guide for Developing Race Consciousness  

Candace Raskin, Ed. D., is a co-founder and facilitator of the Institute for Courageous Principal Leadership and served as an educational leader in Minnesota public schools for 18 years. She is co-author of Principal Leadership for Racial Equity A Field Guide for Developing Race Consciousness 

Antonia Felix, Ed.D., MFA, is the author of 23 books including biographies of Senator Elizabeth Warren, Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and and co-author of Principal Leadership for Racial Equity A Field Guide for Developing Race Consciousness. 

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